Defending the Undefendable

A libertarian political economy.

In Defense of Scabs

Walter Block on the justifications for trade unions.

On 1/1/04, I wrote a piece called "Is there a right to unionize?" Soon after, I received dozens and dozens of responses. Many of them were either simply congratulatory, or raised interesting points I did not address in that article, or, at least, not fully enough. Some were of course critical, but they were all thoughtful and polite. Quite a difference from my experience with other venues! Rather than responding to all these letters, substantively and in detail, I thought I would reply to some of the points made by several of my correspondents.
1. Unionism is legitimate.

Many insisted that theoretically, unions are compatible with the free society. I agree, I agree. Nothing I said before should be taken to be inconsistent with this view. All such a union would have to do is to eschew both white and blue-collar crime. I only argue that it has never happened in fact (see on this, Hutt, W. H. 1973. The Strike Threat System: The Economic Consequences of Collective Bargaining, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House; Hutt, W. H. 1989. "Trade Unions: The Private Use of Coercive Power," The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. III, pp. 109-120; Petro, Sylvester. 1957. The Labor Policy of the Free Society, New York: Ronald Press), not that it would be impossible for it to occur.

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However, I am something of a fuss-pot about language (see Block, Walter. "Watch Your Language," February 21, 2000; Block, Walter. "Taking back the language," April 1, 2000; Block, Walter. "Word Watch," April 20, 2000). Surely, a worker's association that totally eschews the initiation of violence, or even the threat thereof, deserves different nomenclature from organizations it only superficially resembles; e.g., unions. My suggestion is that we not characterize as a union any labor organization that strictly limits itself to the threat of quitting en masse.

What, then, should we call a group of workers who eschew both beating up "scabs" and laws compelling employers to bargain with them? Here are some possibilities: workers' associations, employees' groups, organizations of staff members, etc.

Thus. Are workers' associations as defined above compatible with free enterprise? You bet your boots they are. Do unions, or organized labor qualify in this regard? No, a thousand times no.

2. Public sector unions.

One reader, a very distinguished fellow columnist, takes the position that public sector unions are the worst of them all (not his exact language, which is too pithy to be fully recorded here).

In my view, public sector unions present theoretical libertarianism with a very complex challenge (albeit in a slightly different manner than do private sector unions: in this case, they are not necessarily incompatible with the free society, but, as it happens, there are no actual cases in existence of such employee organizations that are consistent with economic freedom).

The complexity presented by public sector unions is that, on the one hand, from a libertarian perspective they can be seen as a counterweight to illegitimate governments, while on the other hand they constitute an attack on innocent citizens. Each of these different roles calls for a somewhat different libertarian response.

Let us take the first case first. For the limited government libertarian, or minarchist, the state is illegitimate if, and to the extent it exceeds its proper bounds. These, typically, include armies (for defense against foreign powers, not offense against them), police to keep local criminals in check (that is, rapists and murderers, etc., not victimless "criminals" such as drug dealers, prostitutes, etc.), and courts to determine guilt or innocence. Some more moderate advocates of laissez faire add to this list roads, communicable disease inoculations, fire protection and mosquito control. For the anarcho-libertarian, of course, there is no such thing as a licit government.

What, then, are libertarians to say about a public sector teachers' union, on strike against a state school? (A similar analysis holds for public sector unions in garbage collection, post office, buses, or in any other industry where government involvement is improper in the first place). It is my contention that the correct analysis of this situation is, "A plague on both your houses." For not one, but both of these organizations is illegitimate. There is no libertarian who can favor government schools, whether anarchist or minarchist (Milton Friedman, who champions public schools, as long as they operate under a voucher system, thus falls outside the realm of libertarianism on this question). So, on one side of this dispute, there is illegitimacy. But the same applies to the other, the union side, as we have previously demonstrated). Thus, there are here two contending forces, both of them in the wrong. From a strategic point of view, we may well even support the union vis - vis the government, since they are the weaker of the two opponents. But from a principled perspective, my main interest here, we must look upon the two of them as would all men of good will witness a battle between the Blood and the Crips, or between Nazi Germany and Communist U.S.S.R. Root for both of them!

Now, let us consider the second case. Here, we note that the public sector union does much more than attack illegitimate government. It also vastly inconveniences practically the entire populace. When schools are closed, garbage is not collected, the buses do not run - because public sector unions utilize violence and the threat thereof to these ends - then the libertarian response is clear: opposition, root and branch.

Let us take one last crack at public sector unions, which brings about a further complication. One of my correspondents mentions that "The last 2003 show of ABC's 20/20 news show had a story on how public employee unions are fighting against people who volunteer for the public good," referring to "one of the great 'Give Me a Break' segments by host John Stossel" (see on this No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Are Volunteers Taking Workers' Jobs? ABCNEWS.com).

The general issue is that citizens have been volunteering to do things like help public sector unionists collect trash in parks, aid them in planting flowers, help them stack books in public libraries, etc., and the unions have reacted viciously, as is their wont.

Before we can shed libertarian light on this contentious issue, let us first ask, What is the libertarian analysis of ordinary people volunteering to help the government do jobs it should not be doing in the first place? To put it in this way is almost to answer the question.

There is no difference in principle between volunteering to help the state perform illegitimate acts (of course, these are not illicit, per se, as are concentration camps; rather, it is improper, in libertarian theory, for governments to take on such responsibilities) such as regarding libraries, schools, parks, etc., and sending them monetary donations for such purposes. In either case, one is aiding and abetting evil, and risking being found guilty of crimes against humanity by a future libertarian Nuremberg trial court.

Repeat after me: free enterprise, good, (excessive) government, bad. Once again from the top: free enterprise, good, (excessive) government, bad! The appellation, "libertarian," is an honorific. It is too precious to be bestowed on all those who claim it. It is my contention that people who support (excessive) government are simply not entitled to its use. (At least in the specific context in which they violate the non-aggression axiom. John Stossel is indeed a libertarian on many other issues, but certainly not on this one).

Here is a lesson for libertarians. If you want to be worthy of this designation, and desire to contribute money to a good cause, do not give to a government that goes beyond its legitimate authority. There are many worthy causes that oppose statist depredations, not support them. If you want to be worthy of this honorific, and wish to donate time to a good cause, e.g., by collecting garbage, planting flowers, or filing books, etc., then do so for the relevant private groups, whether charitable or profit seeking, it matters not one whit.

3. Can a libertarian join a union?

Several members of LewRockwell.com asked if it is proper, if it is even logically possible, for a libertarian join a coercive union? Much as I hate to be controversial (okay, okay, I don't mind it a bit) my answer is Yes. There are many issues upon which I disagree with William F. Buckley, but his decision to join ACTRA is not one of them. (This was the requirement imposed upon him for being allowed to air his television show, Firing Line.)

Why would I take such a seemingly perverted stance? Let me answer by indirection. Given that it is illegitimate for the government to run schools and universities, is it illegitimate for a libertarian to join them whether as a student or a professor? Given that it is illegitimate for the government to organize a post office, is it illegitimate for a libertarian to mail a letter? Given that it is illegitimate for the government to build and manage roads, streets and sidewalks, is it illegitimate for a libertarian to utilize these amenities?

True confession time. I have been a student a public schools; grade school, high school and college. I have even been a professor at several public colleges and universities. I regularly purchase stamps from the evil government post office, and mail letters. I walk on public sidewalks, and avail myself of streets and highways. Mea culpa? Not a bit of it.

If Ayn Rand's heroic character Ragnar Danneskjold has taught us anything, it is that the government is not the legitimate owner of what it claims. Why, then, should we respect its "private property rights" when there is no practical reason to do so? If this means that libertarians can partake of services for which they favor privatization, then so be it.

Similarly, with coercive unions. If a hold-up man demands your money at the point of a gun, giving it up is not incompatible with libertarianism, even though it amounts to acquiescing in theft. If organized labor threatens you with bodily harm unless you join with it and pay dues to it, I cannot think that agreeing to do so per se removes the victim from the ranks of libertarianism. Buckley, to give him credit, never ceased inveighing against the injustice done to him in this way. If he had reversed field, and starting defending unions, then what little claim he has to be a libertarian would have vanished. In this regard, there is all the world of difference between a Marxist professor at a public university who promotes interventionism, and a libertarian who opposes it.

4. Not aware of violence

Several of my correspondents objected on the ground that they were not aware of any violence in their own unions. But, many employees of the IRS are probably not aware that what they are doing amounts to the threat of the initiation of violence. I don't see why all union members should necessarily be aware of this for my thesis (this is hardly original with me) to be correct. My understanding is that after the British left India, the government of the latter began polling people in far removed rural villages as to their thoughts on this matter; they had to stop when they learned that they were not aware that the British had even arrived there in the first place. Heck, there are probably some people out there who still think the earth is flat, or that socialism is an ethical and efficacious system! That does not make it so.

5. Self-defense

Some readers of my previous column on unions objected on the ground that union violence did indeed exist, but was justified on the ground that this was only in self-defense, against employers, scabs, or foreigners. Let us consider each of these in turn.

Yes, employers are violent too. The Pinkertons spring immediately to mind in this regard. Some of these cases were justified in self-defense, against prior union aggression, some were not. In the former case, there is certainly no warrant for invasive behavior on the part of organized labor. But even the latter cases cannot serve as justification for pervasive union aggression, even against non-invading employers. (It is only a Marxist who would claim that employers are necessarily offensive; for an exposure of this fallacy, see Bohm-Bawerk, Eugen. 1959 [1884]. Capital and Interest, South Holland, IL: Libertarian Press, George D. Hunke and Hans F. Sennholz, trans., see particularly Part I, Chapter XII, "Exploitation Theory of Socialism-Communism.") At best, this can validate self-defense on the part of the rank and file in those cases of employer aggression only.

And what of "scabs?" The claim, here, is that "scabs" are stealing, or, better yet, attempting to steal, union jobs. But the scab can only "steal" a job if it is owned, like a coat, or a car. However, a job is very different. It is not something anyone can own. Rather, a job is an agreement between two parties, employer and employee. But when an employer is trying to hire a scab and fire the unionist, this shows he no longer agrees. Do not be fooled by the expression "my job." It does not denote ownership, any more than "my wife," "my husband," "my friend," "my customer," or "my tailor" indicates possession in any of those contexts. Rather, all of these phrases are indicative of voluntary interaction, and end (apart from marriage laws which may prohibit this) when the agreement ceases.

Then, there is the supposed "threat" imposed by Mexican workers (or Indian or Japanese workers, who ever is the economic Hitler of the day). Remember that "giant sucking sound?" The best remedy for this bit of economic illiteracy is to read up on free trade. Henry Hazlitt's book, Economics in One Lesson, would be a great place to start.

6. But they signed a contract

Several respondents argued that since the employer signed a labor contract, he should be forced to abide by its provisions. But why should the employer have to honor a contract that was signed under duress? Suppose I held a gun on you, threatened to shoot you unless you signed a "contract" with me, promising to give me $100 per week. Later on, when you were safe, you reneged on this "contract." Certainly, you'd be within your rights.

7. Maximize income

One reader asked: "How else is a man who sells the only product most of us have, labor and time, going to maximize the return of his investment, other than by joining a union?"

First of all, even if this were true, any criminal could say no less. A hold-up man, too, wants to "maximize the return of his investment" and does so by committing aggression against non-aggressors. How is the unionist any different than the hold-up man in this regard?

Secondly, it is by no means clear that organized labor is the last best chance for economic well being on the part of the workingman. Anyone ever hear of the rust belt? Unions from Illinois to Massachusetts demanded wages and fringe benefits in excess of productivity levels, and employers were powerless to resist. The result was "runaway shops." Either they ran into bankruptcy, or they relocated to places like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, where unionism was seen more for the economic and moral scourge that it is, than in Taxachussetts. If organizing workers into unions is the be all and end all of prosperity, how is it that wages and working conditions are very good in computers, insurance, banking, and a plethora of other non unionized industries?

8. Hierarchy is the real problem.

This claim must have been made by a left-wing libertarian. He acknowledges that unions are illegitimate, but thinks that their real problem is that they are hierarchical, and chides me for not opposing all hierarchical organizations, which would certainly include employers, too.

But this is just plain silly. Libertarians oppose the initiation of coercion or the threat thereof, not hierarchy. Yes, all groups that violate the non-aggression axiom of libertarians are hierarchical. Governments, gangs, rapists, impose their will, by force, on their victims. They give orders. And yes, in all hierarchies, people at the top of the food chain give orders to those below them. But the difference, and this is crucial, is that the recipients of orders in the latter case have agreed to accept them, but this does not at all apply in the former case.

When the rapist orders the victim to carry out his commands, this is illegitimate hierarchy. When the conductor orders the cellist to do so, this is an aspect of legitimate hierarchy. I oppose unions not because they are hierarchical, but because the scabs have never agreed to carry out their orders.

 

Walter Block, Ph.D., is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Prof. of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and the author of Defending the Undefendable.

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